Red Herrings and White Elephants

I so enjoyed the last Albert Jack book I read that I decided to read another. However, rather than dealing with the meaning and origin of nursery rhymes, Red Herrings and White Elephants deals with ‘the origins of the phrases we use every day’.

Red Herrings and White Elephants

I’ll give a couple of examples that particularly struck me.

First, Dead Ringers, as used to indicate a lookalike. I very much doubt the following explanation is true, but it’s too grisly and macabre to waste. In medieval times, the medical profession was not particularly advanced. Doctors were prone to pronounce dead anyone not conscious (unlike this fellow), not really understanding comas. This resulted in horrific examples of people being buried alive. When their coffins were later exhumed, you could see their fingers worn to the bone, and scratch marks on the inside of the coffin, where the awakened ‘corpse’ was desperately trying to claw their way out. Fearing this, and distrusting medical opinion, some would bury their dead with strings attached to their wrists, which were connected to a bell above the grave. If the body came back to life, then the bell could be heard and the coffin dug up, so the person could resume their lives. Hence, if an acquaintance saw such a resurrected person in the street who they were sure had been dead and buried, they would say they were a ‘dead ringer’.

Secondly, Shi… er, the naughtier version of ‘poo’ (I try to keep this blog clean). Manure and dung were often used as fertiliser, and would be sailed across Britain in boats and ships. However, when manure gets damp, it gives off methane gas, which could become an explosive hazard if it builds up. Sailors therefore realised keeping it stored in the holds was dangerous. Better to keep it in the dryer upper decks. Hence ‘Store High In Transit’ would be stamped on the containers, which eventually shortened to an acronym.

Actually, I don’t think this is true either. A quick internet search on the etymology of sh… that word, shows that it in Old English you had the noun scite and the verb scītan, which became the Middle English schītte and shiten. There are similar words in German (Scheiße), Dutch (schijt) and Swedish (skit) – all of which would suggest that it is a very old word that evolved with different variations in the Germanic languages of Northwest Europe.

This isn’t turning out to be a very good advert, throwing doubt on the book’s explanations! But actually I suspect most of them are perfectly true… from Codswallop, to In a Nutshell, to Wash Your Dirty Linen in Public.

As for the title: Red Herring refers to the fact that, pre-refrigeration, in the 18th and 19th centuries, herring, a widely caught fish, could only be preserved by salting and smoking, which would turn it a deep brownish red colour. It also had a strong smell. Early anti-fox hunting campaigners would drag the strong-smelling fish along hunt routes, but away from the foxes, which would cause the confused hounds to follow the ‘red herring’ rather than the foxes. Hence the phrases’ meaning as a false or misleading clue.

White Elephants were revered in Siam (modern-day Thailand) – so much that any that were found automatically belonged to the King. They were so revered that you could not neglect, work or ride the elephant – that is, it was prestigious but useless. The wily King found a way to deal with subjects that displeased him. He’d give them a white elephant. They’d have to look after the animal – requiring a huge amount of time and food – but couldn’t get any benefit from working or riding the animal. It was a sure-fire way to ruin them. Hence why we call big, expensive projects that aren’t all that useful white elephants.


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